Keeping up with my Kardashian obsession: Why no celebrity tell-all book can crack their iron-clad image

I read the new bio "Kim" hoping for deep insights, and left hungry for more Kardashian Instagram instead

Published October 5, 2015 6:03PM (EDT)

  (AP/Jordan Strauss)
(AP/Jordan Strauss)

Nothing can tarnish Kim Kardashian’s reputation—not even Cosmopolitan calling her kin “America’s First Family.” With every scandal she’s faced, she’s managed to come out on top. Love her or hate her, we simply can’t get enough of her, or her momager Kris Jenner, her almost equally famous siblings and former stepparent, Caitlyn Jenner.

Like millions of other people on this planet, I can’t look away when I see the name “Kardashian.” So of course I was willing to plunk down $19.99 to read the new biography "Kim" by Sean Smith, whose website touts him as “the UK’s leading celebrity biographer” for his books on Kate Middleton, J.K. Rowling, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Jennifer Aniston, Victoria Beckham and others. While I haven’t read any of those, I was expecting, as per early hype around the book, some dirt, some dish, something I didn’t know about the world’s most famous reality TV star before I opened the book.

To say I was disappointed would be putting it mildly. I raced through the book, eagerly awaiting some big reveal, some behind the scenes moment where Kim Kardashian West would be outed as a little less perfect than she seems to be, even when she’s crying on TV. What I got, though, was basically the same origin story as anyone who knows the most basic facts about her will be familiar with: her father was O.J. Simpson’s lawyer, her mother Nicole Brown Simpson’s friend. She helped Paris Hilton sort out her closet, made money selling clothes on eBay, made a sex tape, and the rest is history.

At least the tabloids lead with racy headlines that make me want to flip through to whatever drama they’re alleging is going down with the Kardashian/Jenners. The serious-looking image of Kim on the cover of "Kim" is barely disturbed, save for old accusations that she tipped off paparazzi when she went on a movie date with Nick Lachey, which comes off like sour grapes on the part of Lachey, and an assertion that “From a young age, Kim preferred black men,” backed up by details like “Kim looked at pictures of interracial couples in the teen magazines she bought as a schoolgirl and thought they looked cute together.”

That’s not to say there’s nothing interesting in the book, including her ancestors’ history settling in the U.S., and astrology fans will surely geek out over the extended reading of Kim’s chart, but it’s certainly not groundbreaking, or a tome that should keep Kim up at night with worry. Smith goes to Calabasas and offers a glimpse into the town that launched the family we love to hate-watch. He reveals that Kim’s favorite salad at the café Health Nut in El Camino can be rung up by the cashier simply pressing a button marked “Kardashian.” Alas, Smith describes it as “a pretty dull chicken salad with a pleasant tangy dressing – nothing the chef couldn’t run up in five minutes at home.” In essence, that’s the culinary equivalent of my take on the book. Yes, it would take much more than five minutes to come up with the story Smith tells; he did delve deep into the Kardashian and Jenner backstories, but he doesn’t offer what fans really want: to know what real life flesh and blood Kim Kardashian is like.

For that, you’ll have to look to events like the June launch of Kim-endorsed Hype energy drink. At Stylecaster, Samantha Lim noted that while she’s not exactly a fan, “I do find the chokehold she has on the world pretty damn fascinating. It blows my mind that this woman—who’s almost 35 years old—has managed to become a twisted, modern-day definition of female success given her, um, less-than-savory origins.” Lim got swept up into the fray, noting that “It was like we’d all been bitten by a Kardashian zombie.” In a world where some of us want to be said zombies (it’s clearly not just me), if only because doing so offers a welcome break from the darker side of everyday life, it’s not the facts and figures that matter so much as the, well, hype—and not the potable kind.

Kim has over 47 million Instagram followers and over 35 million Twitter followers not so much because people expect they are going to glean every detail of her existence from her postings, but because she teases just enough about her life to make us, much like the explanation of Howard Stern’s popularity in his movie "Private Parts," want to find out what happens next.

My hunch is that the collective (sorry, I simply cannot bring myself to write “kollective”) Kardashians, perhaps under Kris Jenner’s tutelage, have masterminded turning what the rest of us might call “private” into part of their ongoing story, one that can overcome what for others might be a career-breaking scandal. For almost anyone else, a 72-day marriage that yielded millions in fees for its participants might wreck their image as a die-hard romantic. Not so for Kim. In fact, even though Smith alludes to fallout over Kim’s marriage to Kris Humphries, that doesn’t stop him from referring to Kim and Kanye’s love affair as one straight out of a rom-com.

Same goes for how much of the show is “real.” As it turns out, nobody really cared that then-porn star Bree Olson, who’s since renounced the industry based on the judgment she received for starring in x-rated films, was hired to be a babysitter on an early episode of "KUWTK," which Smith recaps in "Kim." Again, we aren’t tuning in for a fact-checked documentary, but to be entertained. So when Smith writes, “This is the reality of the reality. The cameras are on the Kardashians all the time to see how they react to a situation that is often manufactured,” it just doesn’t have any sting behind it. Even being forced by the FDA to take down an Instagram post about a morning sickness drug she was hawking hasn’t slowed down her momentum. She just reposted it on Instagram with the hashtag #CorrectiveAd, thus garnering herself even more publicity.

The day after I read "Kim," I bought a copy of Life & Style at my local supermarket because its headline blared “Kim Drags Kylie to Court!” It was the September 28 issue, which had already made it “old” news, but I didn’t care, because what could be juicier than a story promising “Greed Pits Sisters Against Sister.” I really don’t care all that much whether a story like that is true or not—it’s still fun to read that “Furious Kim believes Kylie has ‘stolen her entire look, from head to toe, and is booking jobs that otherwise would’ve gone to Kim,’ says a source.” How can you not love the prospect of millionaire sisters supposedly arguing over money?

That’s why I don’t think a biography or tell-all or any kind of gotcha story on any of the Kardashians will ever truly succeed, unless it contained a mind-blowing claim that went beyond slut-shaming or playing with meaning of “reality.” Yes, there are some fans who want just the facts, like the Tumblr Keeping Up With the Kontinuity Errors, which uses “Twitter, Instagram, paparazzi photos and common sense” to “unearth the truths, timeline falsities, and reckless use of editing presented throughout the show.” But if continuity errors were enough to sink the show, E! wouldn’t have forked over $100 million to the family in their latest four-year deal. The show, and its stars, succeed not because they are actually giving us a peek behind every closet door or inside every argument, marriage, breakup or makeover, but because they are appearing to give us everything, and making us want to fill in, or debate amongst ourselves, the details they don’t explicitly share.

So yes, we might know exactly how much Kim earns from her various endorsement deals thanks to Smith, but how can we be offended we’re the ones funding those ventures? Smith writes, “It’s as if Kim stood in front of the mirror and decided how best to utilise every bit of herself.” I don’t think anyone could disagree with that statement. The major shift we’ve seen in our culture in the last decade, though, is that this is now an asset, a marketing strength, a reason to admire Kim, rather than denigrate her. It’s the answer to everyone who still claims she’s famous for her sex tape or solely “for being famous.” If that were the case, her maternity style wouldn’t be responsible for influencing that entire industry.

As Caitlin Flanagan wrote in The New York Times Book Review when reviewing Kim’s book of selfies, "Selfish," “There’s nothing cynical about Kardashian’s enterprise. What fuels everything — every product and episode and personal appearance — is the honestly held and unshakable conviction that she is special and better and more interesting than anyone else around her.”

We’ve reached a point where pretty much nobody can truly hate Kim Kardashian—except, perhaps, NPR listeners and Sinead O’Connor—and even most of the haters can’t help but admit some bit of admiration for her staying power. Even if they don’t, they’re no deterrent to success; again, as with Howard Sterns, the detractors somehow still add fuel to their fifteen minutes of fame. I would like to think we are past the point of caring how much Kim and Ray J were or weren’t paid for the sex tape that porn company Vivid Entertainment ultimately released as "Kim K Superstar." No matter what the amount, the Kim who’s on the cover of Vogue, whose every fashion choice while pregnant is headline news, whose makeup artist is famous, is simply beyond those details. She’s surpassed them to move into her own special realm of fame, one that no biography, even one that did have “dirt,” could truly damage.

She even took a selfie with Hillary Clinton, who called her “warm and very personable.” Whether Clinton really thought that or simply knew speaking ill of Kim might get her into more hot water than her email scandal, I don’t know, but when a presidential candidate is praising you, it’s clear you’re not just a flash in the pan. Take note, cashier who gave a shopper a disapproving look for buying Smith’s book.

Ultimately, if you’re looking for any damaging nuggets that might dethrone Kim or her family, you won’t find them in "Kim." You will find factoids such as: Kris and Robert Kardashian, parents of Kourtney, Kim, Khloé and Rob, attended Bible studies hosted by Pat Boone, and attended by the likes of Doris Day and Priscilla Presley, among many other brushes with celebrity before “Kardashian” become a household name. Smith suggests that rather than trying to emulate Paris Hilton, Kim may have gotten her inspiration from singer Brandy while working for her as a personal stylist, especially her reality show "Brandy: Special Delivery. "“For Kim Kardashian, it was an eye-opener. Here was someone she knew turning her life into entertainment. Throughout her career, Kim has done very little that could be described as original, but she is unsurpassed at absorbing influences and making sure she does it bigger and better.” I don’t think we needed Sean Smith to tell us that.

I’m hoping Ian Halperin’s Kardashian Dynasty, out in 2016, will be a little more juicy. Until then, I’ll stick with keeping up in my preferred ways, from the family’s social media to tabloid stories and accounts of Kim in the flesh, and will be first in line to buy Khloé Kardhashian’s November body image-themed book "Strong Looks Better Naked."

By Rachel Kramer Bussel

Rachel Kramer Bussel is the author of "Sex & Cupcakes: A Juicy Collection of Essays" and the editor of more than 70 anthologies, including "The Big Book of Orgasms" and the Best Women's Erotica of the Year series. She teaches erotica writing workshops online and in-person, writes widely about books, culture, sex, dating and herself, and Tweets @raquelita.

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